Legion of Super-Heroes: The Silver Age Volume One collects the earliest appearances of the enduring team in chronological order.
It started as a throwaway story idea: three super-powered teenagers from the future traveled back in time to invite Superboy (the teenaged version of flagship hero Superman and an enduring attraction for DC Comics) to join their club. After some good-natured hazing, the Teen of Steel was welcomed with open arms. Reader reactions were positive, so over the next couple of years, the Legion kept popping up as guest stars in a variety of Superman-related books, along the way inducting Superman’s teenaged cousin, Supergirl, as a part-time member, too. Turning up more and more frequently, the team finally graduated to its own ongoing feature in Adventure Comics in the Fall of 1962.
In many ways, the Legion and its somewhat haphazard course was emblematic of DC Comics in the Silver Age. They earned their stripes with fans via guest stints, until the publisher deemed there was sufficient engagement to support an ongoing feature. The Superman connection was critical, as the story had it that his legend endured far into the future, inspiring the teens of the Legion to heroism. The time travel element allowed the Legion to interact with Superboy and Superman both, as well as his cousin (still a teen during Superman’s adult years). The stories in The Silver Age Volume One bear all the charming and occasionally maddening hallmarks of DC’s Silver Age output.
The Legion franchise reflected DC’s attitude toward continuity at the time, which was a moving target at best. DC editorial was notorious for retro-constructing stories to match a striking cover image they’d already concocted. That meant that writers and artists frequently were forced to ignore established facts or find a way to massage events to support the cover concept without entirely throwing the basics out the window. That might mean, for example, that writers had a hard time remembering just how far in the future the Legion lived. At times, it was explicitly stated that the team came from a thousand years after the publication time. At other times, they were noted to be “from the 21st century,” only a few decades ahead of the setting for Superboy’s adventures (roughly the late ’40s for stories published in the early ‘60s). Characterization was inconsistent. In one tale, Saturn Girl seized control of the team to set herself up for a potential suicide mission and spare her teammates; but only a few months later, still the putative team leader, she mutely accepted Brainiac 5’s dictum that she couldn’t volunteer for another dangerous mission because she was a girl. These early Legion stories also relied on tried and true plot devices of the DC stable of the time, including fantastic coincidences, smart characters being dumb or gullible, convenient turns of events that moved the plot along and the prevalence of deus ex machina moments to wrap up stories. And if all else failed, most issues ended with a figurative push of the “reset” button anyway.
One of the more daring stories for its day was the decision to kill off popular founding member Lightning Lad, who swooped into the suicide mission in Saturn Girl’s place. That was a decent example of observing the feature’s continuity, as the romantic feelings between the duo had been slowly bubbling to the surface. And unlike other stories (including one in this very collection) where a dramatic “death” was used to grab attention but was undone inside of a few pages, Lightning Lad’s demise lasted for quite some time, with frequent references to it in the stories that followed.
When it came to futurism, seeing Silver Age creators’ conception of what that might look like can be a charming experience for contemporary readers. Some elements could be head-scratching (the complete lack of minorities in the future, unless you counted orange-skinned Chameleon Boy or green-skinned Brainiac 5), and it would be a long time before creators learned that just slapping “astro” or some other futuristic sounding prefix onto words didn’t necessarily make an object feel like it came from ten centuries on.
The Legion was ahead of the curve in having several female members. Saturn Girl was a founder and was usually a strong, central part of the action. But other than the rarely appearing Supergirl, many of the other female members (Phantom Girl, Shrinking Violet and Triplicate Girl) were deployed more as background elements, used poorly and developed almost not at all. The long-term story took a gender-bending turn that was daring for the time, when Lightning Lad’s twin sister impersonated him and pretended he’d “come back from the dead” before the truth came out and she joined the team as Lightning Lass, who had a more visceral power than most of the other female members.
For a franchise known for its striking rogues gallery, these early Legion stories also featured few memorable villains. Superman’s arch-foe Lex Luthor figured in a couple of plots, and the collection does include the introductions of notable Legion menaces like the original Legion of Super-Villains (Lightning Lord, Cosmic King and Saturn Queen) and space pirate Roxxas. But apart from a couple of colorful one-off villains near the end of the run collected here, the Legion mostly faced a variety of evil scientists, would-be futuristic crooks and garish monsters that tended toward the generic.
For Legion fans, though, this is a vital glimpse into the team’s origins. Many of the mainstays of decades of stories started in this stretch, several of them getting nice spotlights. A lot of the team’s basics were laid out here, elements that might evolve over the years to come but would remain recognizably part of the franchise’s fabric (like leader elections and the team’s at times contentious relationship with Earth’s government). And while some of these tales can feel throwaway (Supergirl going on a cross-time rampage because she’s suddenly distraught that her unmarried cousin will die an unhappy bachelor?), there are some notable events. The Legion of Super-Villains would become a significant recurring threat for the heroes and Roxxas would be back to cause more mayhem. Mon-El’s introduction cast Superboy in an unflattering light, but the ongoing feature solved the issue of making him an ongoing part of the cast. The death of Lightning Lad was notable for how rare significant heroic fatalities were at the time and how long the series allowed the popular character to remain off the board. The foundations for the enduring Lightning Lad/Saturn Girl romance were given root here.
Numerous Silver Age luminaries worked on these stories, including names like Curt Swan, Otto Binder, Al Plastino, Jerry Siegel, Jim Mooney, Edmond Hamilton and John Forte. These creators innovated many of the elements that would make the Legion an ongoing favorite, many of which would evolve with the series over decades. The simpler, in many ways gentler, approach may seem quaint to modern readers, but there’s a disarming directness to a lot of the storytelling that has a certain appeal.
For serious fans, Legion of Super-Heroes: The Silver Age Volume One is a valuable look at the team’s origins.